The death toll from COVID-19 is heartbreaking. Death from any cause is heartbreaking to the mourners, and now, in this time of pandemic, the funerals themselves are heartbreaking. We have not been able to lay our loved ones to rest in ways that traditionally bring comfort such as gathering at the synagogue or funeral home, and then before the grave, in large, comforting numbers. We cannot participate in the painful but meaningful mitzvah of burying our dead one shovelful at a time. We do not enter a shiva house full of photos and stories and too much food.
If there is such a thing as closure, this week’s Torah portion offers some. Joseph had asked that his bones be brought up from Egypt (Genesis 50) and from generation to generation, the word was passed down, finally into Moses’ ear. In this week’s Torah portion, as the Israelites are freed from Egyptian bondage, we are told that Moses brings the bones of Joseph with him as the Israelites leave forever.
Not for another 40 years would Joseph be laid to rest in Israel, though not by Moses, and not even by Joshua, but by the Israelites after him. We read in Joshua 24:32: “The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites.”
At last, Joseph was laid to rest in the land of Israel, approximately 600 years after he died. I imagine that they did not just bury his bones but perhaps they also said a few words and called him “Yosef ben Yaakov v’Rachel.” Perhaps they noted the sacred space in which he was being buried and spoke of the other patriarchs and matriarchs buried there. Maybe they mentioned that his wife and sons were not buried alongside him.
This year, since funerals could not be what they were in years past, and though we are thankful for Zoom, I believe that unveilings should and will take on greater significance. With thanks to the world’s vaccine creators, distributors and administrators, it will be the first time that family members and friends will be able to gather at the burial site, a sacred space, and tell stories and read the name and loving nouns and adjectives inscribed in the stone. Then they will look at the other family plots and tell those stories as well. The handfuls of stones that mourners will bring will stay behind to say to the deceased, “You are not forgotten” and to future mourners, “You are not alone.” PJC
Rabbi Barbara AB Symons is the rabbi of Temple David in Monroeville. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.